Dear Canadian churches of the Christian Reformed Church:
On February 6, 2015 the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) ruled that Canada’s existing laws against assisted suicide are unconstitutional, and gave federal and provincial governments 12 months to change them. This unanimous decision of the Court is nuanced and complex, requiring prayer and careful discernment. Compassion for suffering, protection of vulnerable people, and the celebration and affirmation of life are all Biblical values that our communities hold dear. The national dialogue needs the voices of Christians who graciously speak these values into the deeply controversial issue of physician-assisted suicide.
What we know:
The SCC has ruled that laws against physician-assisted suicide violate rights to life, liberty, and security (Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms) by restricting the choices of individuals who experience "intolerable suffering", in the language of this SCC decision. Therefore the Court has ruled that “in certain circumstances, an individual’s choice about the end of her life is entitled to respect” (para 63).
On this basis the SCC is recommending the development of new laws that define the circumstances of acceptable physician-assisted suicide (PAS). It encourages legislation that will: promote a careful reflective process between doctor and patient; protect physicians who object to providing assistance for suicide; and provide for the protection of the vulnerable from abuse or error. The failure to respond to the SCC’s decision with new legislation within the next year would put us into a situation similar to that of abortion in Canada: no law means no restrictions.
Disability advocates have pointed out a number of concerns with the judgement:
- The use of the term “grievous and irremediable medical condition” rather than “terminal illness” potentially means that all persons with a serious disability in Canada can access Assisted Suicide. This degree of permissiveness does not exist anywhere else in the world.
- The use of the term “intolerable suffering” creates legal grey areas, making protection of vulnerable people difficult.
How can the Church respond?
This SCC decision has shifted the ground for PAS in Canada. We are all greatly concerned by this new and mandatory legal reality, but this decision is also an opportunity to craft real life-affirming legislation. We do not believe that a heated reaction will be effective or helpful. On the contrary, a posture of prayerful and constructive engagement with this issue will be more effective and appropriate. We have an opportunity to support, encourage, and motivate our legislators, who are “God’s servants to do us good” (Romans 13:4a), to affirm life, protect the vulnerable and promote compassion.
In 2000 the CRC Synod adopted the following resolution concerning end of life issues (Acts of Synod 2000, Article 59, p.708):
That with respect to public policy, churches:
- Encourage the allocation of health-care funding for adequate palliative services, home care, and medical support services for all people.
- Encourage government initiatives that will allow medical treatment aimed at pain relief even if that treatment may unintentionally shorten life.
- Encourage government initiatives that will promote life-affirming legislation and oppose legislation that endorses assisted suicide or mercy killing.
Governments in Canada will want to hear from citizens in the coming weeks and months. As citizens we can encourage our leaders to work for new laws on PAS that emphasize compassion (including aggressive pain management as in #2 above), great palliative care, and robust legal measures to protect vulnerable people, including people with disabilities. And we can so do in a tone and approach that is proactive, giving legislators input they can use to respond to this new legal reality. We will continue to engage constructively with this issue and to communicate with congregations as it develops.
It is important that our government representatives hear from us on this issue now. Building respectful relationships with them is key to helping them in the process of crafting new laws that reflect the important values of compassion and protection of the vulnerable.
Will you take a minute to contact your Member of Parliament and provincial representative (MPP, MNA, MHA, or MLA) today to emphasize the values that we believe should be respected in this new legal reality for PAS?
Here are some simple ways to make connections and start the conversation:
We hope the Synod 2000 resolution above will be helpful to you in these conversations. In these early days after the Court decision, our policy makers are considering their response. Taking the first step of starting a conversation that both expresses our hopes and concerns and offers support to policy makers for the tough job ahead can set the tone for a positive and constructive dialogue once the detailed work begins.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Darren Roorda, Director of Canadian Ministries, Christian Reformed Church
Mike Hogeterp, Centre for Public Dialogue, Christian Reformed Church
Peter Vander Meulen, Office of Social Justice, Christian Reformed Church
Mark Stephenson, Disability Concerns, Christian Reformed Church